Syria is working covertly through a network of Lebanese operatives to ensure Damascus can still dominate its smaller neighbor even after it withdraws the last of 15,000 troops, in defiance of a U.N. resolution demanding an end to Syria's 29-year control over Lebanon, according to U.S., European and U.N. officials, and Lebanon's opposition.
Although Syria shut down its notorious intelligence headquarters in downtown Beirut, Damascus is establishing a new hidden presence in the capital's southern suburbs, bringing in officials who will not be recognized, say Lebanese opposition and Western sources. The move would contradict a pledge by President Bashar Assad to withdraw Syria's large intelligence operation from the Lebanese capital as of today.
Syrian soldiers in a truck move toward the border in the eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.
(Mohamed Azakir -- Reuters)
Lebanon FAQ: Frequently asked questions about the political situation in Lebanon and the country's relationship with Syria.
U.S., European and U.N. officials also charge that Syria is using allies in Lebanon's government and agents in Lebanon's security services to stall Lebanon's spring elections for a new parliament, the key to political change. In the current government, the president, the acting prime minister and at least 70 of the 128 members of parliament are pro-Syrian.
"Despite the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, Damascus has controlled Lebanon primarily through Lebanese institutions that it fills with pro-Syrian loyalists," wrote Robert G. Rabil in an analysis this week for the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
In a last major diplomatic push, U.S. and European envoys have all issued tough and repeated demarches -- or formal warnings -- over the past two weeks to Assad's government about the urgent need to abandon all efforts to influence Lebanese political life, as well as ending the long-standing Syrian military presence, the sources said.
"What we're trying to do is put as much pressure on Damascus to make clear that any use of the assets it has in Lebanon, residually or otherwise, will not be tolerated -- and to the degree anything bad happens, Syria will be held responsible," said a senior U.S. official involved in Lebanon policy.
A senior State Department official added: "The message we're sending is: The people who should be running Lebanon are not Syrian or agents of Syria, but the Lebanese. . . . The only presence Syria should have in Lebanon is an embassy, like every other foreign country." Syria, which has long considered Lebanon to be an extension of its own sovereignty, does not have an embassy in Beirut.
U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is expected to stress the importance of removing all vestiges of Syrian influence during his third and final round of talks with Assad on Sunday, before submitting his formal report to the U.N. Security Council about whether Damascus has complied, U.S. and European officials said. In preparation for the meeting, Roed-Larsen flew to Washington for talks yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
Afterward, State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said the international community now has achieved "a clear and straightforward consensus . . . that this is an issue that needs to be resolved urgently so that the Lebanese can have real elections untainted by foreign interference."
In their demarches, the United States and the European Union, which have crafted a joint policy on Lebanon, also made clear that they hold Syria at least partially responsible for a recent spate of bombings, U.S. officials said.
"We believe they are behind those attacks," the first senior U.S. official said. "We're concerned that they want to foment the kind of bombings and dislocation that the Lebanese fear could happen -- and that will allow the Syrians to say this is what happens when we remove our forces from your country." Syria first deployed troops to Lebanon in 1976 as part of a failed attempt to end a civil war, which raged on for another 14 years.
Syria has other means of influencing events in Lebanon, note U.S. and Middle East analysts. The two countries have a joint defense agreement that could allow Syria to return on virtually any grounds. And economically, more than 600,000 Syrian workers are pivotal to a country smaller than Connecticut with fewer than 4 million people.
Untangling the economic relations between the two countries will be difficult, and may be left for a separate set of negotiations to arrange new treaties governing trade, immigration and employment. Many Syrian workers are in menial jobs in the eastern Bekaa Valley, providing cheap labor that many Lebanese farmers have come to rely on.
"Syrian influence has permeated most facets of economic, political and social life here with even senior civil positions having to be cleared from Damascus. Of course topping them all is their intimate relationships with all Lebanese security agencies. Now that the Syrians are withdrawing, to expect that intimate relationship to wither away would be plain naivete," said Timur Goksel, a long-serving former U.N. adviser in Lebanon now teaching at American University of Beirut.
The U.N. and U.S. strategy in Lebanon is based on the Syrian military withdrawal's creating a new space for free elections and political change. And some Lebanese analysts are optimistic. Syria is bound to "keep exploring ways to sustain its influence," said Rami Khouri, editor of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "But I don't see how Syria can keep a significant residual influence, given the strong domestic pressures for an overhaul of the political and security systems in Lebanon."
But others argue that almost three decades of control is hard to undo. And the most crucial element of Syrian control may be psychological, Goksel added. "Many Lebanese opportunists, former warlords, nouveau riche types who made their fortunes by linking their fates to Syrian presence and thus contributed more than anyone else to turn Lebanon into a Syrian protectorate have truly created an atmosphere of total Syrian dependence here."
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Beirut contributed to this report.